1. "For Heaven's Sake!"
People who read the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg very soon find themselves judging everything from the point of view of the spiritual world and the life after death. He was able to convince us that we shall all be there in our own eternity in the not-too-far-distant future; and then we shall be regarding our temporary life spent on this earth in rather a different way from what most of us tend to do here and now. Actually that was the reason why the Lord opened Swedenborg's inner vision and gave him this broader and deeper consciousness; it was just so that he could help us to obtain a truer perspective on life here and now.
Some years ago, the main focus of the Christian ministry was on the Social Gospel. The church existed, it was supposed, for the sole purpose of improving conditions of life in this world. If a minister so much as mentioned the life after death, he was almost made to feel ashamed of himself! He was regarded as a cop-out, evading the real issues of this real material world, by talk of a happy but unreal land, far, far away, where everything would be O.K. Karl Marx called religion "The opiate of the poor," and it is regrettably true that many members of the upper class regarded religion in that light, promising the working classes "pie in the sky when you die," so as to keep them content. Even spiritually minded people have adopted this attitude, saying: "We don't believe in hell (how could our loving heavenly Father torture His own children?); and if there is a heaven, with rewards offered for well-doing on earth, why not leave it as a pleasant surprise for those who qualify?" "One world at a time," people were saying; "If there is a future life, we shall know all about it when we get there. It does not concern us here and now." The Chinese sage Confucius seems to have held this view, five hundred years before Christ. We are told that there was only one thing which made the old philosopher lose his cool, and that was if he was asked about a life after death.
Well, Swedenborg's own experiences in the other world, and his reports on the people he met there and their way of living, make most of these speculations sound rather ridiculous. Actually, many spirits who had confirmed themselves, while on earth, that there was no continuation of life after death, still believe this, even though they may have been living in the spiritual world for hundreds of years, as measured by earthly time. Their idea of a future life was that it would be entirely different from the life on earth: sitting on clouds and playing a harp, or being pitch-forked into a fire by horned devils. Some of the spirits Swedenborg met were still waiting for the "last day," when the trumpet would sound and the dead would rise from the graves and be carried up on high, to be judged before the Great White Throne. Since this had not happened, they assumed they were not yet dead!
I think that an exclusive concern for the Social Gospel has been abandoned somewhat by the churches in recent years, especially since experience has proved that better living conditions do not necessarily produce better people, as used to be thought. There are corruptions in an affluent society, even among the elite, just as much as there are in the city slums, or under conditions of extreme poverty such as we find in undeveloped countries. The churches are now realizing that social improvement is not the answer, but what is needed is a national conscience which concerns itself with spiritual values; a change of motivation, from expedience ("What profit do I get out of it?") to dedication ("How can I best serve the Lord, and extend the kingdom of heaven in our midst?")
So the questions arise: What is the kingdom of heaven? What are its values? How would a society function if its members wholeheartedly adopted those values? And here Swedenborg makes his invaluable contribution, by showing us in detail how people are living in heaven; and, by contrast, how they are living in hell. For, as he explains, death does not introduce any new element. All it does is to strip a man of his externals, together with his physical body. The man himself continues to live as before, but now he is more essentially himself, motivated and governed by his "Ruling Love," the dominant love he developed during his life on earth. To die is only like leaving school and going out into the world. Death is an important stage in our development, of course; but it is only a stage. In this respect it is like birth; there is a continuity from the fetus to the living child. So, after a life of trial and error and experimentation and innumerable choices in this physical world, we pass on by another birth, as it were, into the life of eternity in the spiritual world, a much more real world (not less real) than the one in which we are living here.
It is for this final life in eternity that God has been preparing us from the beginning. I can imagine Him thinking: "I should like to have a society of human beings who are perfectly happy together, loving one another and loving Me. They must be active, busily occupied. There must be arts and sciences among them, to stretch their minds and imagination; there must be joy and dancing and all kinds of self-expression. Each individual must be a self-conscious person, an ego; and they must love one another as from themselves, and love Me (God) as from themselves. They must be mature people, so secure on their own feet that they have no need to think about themselves but can devote their attention entirely to loving and serving one another."
Such creatures are what we call the angels in heaven: not paragons of virtue, just ordinary folk who love the Lord their God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and their neighbor as themselves. Angels can be defined as "fully developed people"; though there is always plenty of room for further development to eternity. They are the graduates from the school of life. The angels are not a separate creation, exempt from human frailties and needs; every one of them was once in this world, or on some other planet. Only when we have grasped this idea of the on-goingness of life, from conception in the womb, through birth into this world, and then through death and rebirth into eternity - only then can we rightly assess conditions here on earth, this little section of the whole process, a few hours (as it were) during which we must prepare ourselves for the next and vastly more important stage. Life here must be lived, in fact, "for Heaven's sake."
A good example of this changed attitude came up the other day when a lady was saying how difficult she found it to believe in God when she drove in her car through the city slums and saw the kids playing among the broken bottles and garbage and rats, in derelict abandoned property. She said she couldn't believe in a God who would allow such things. One answer is that God has appointed human agents to work for Him on the physical plane, and one of His agents is the City Council. A more reasonable thing for the lady to say would be: "I find it difficult to believe in the existence of a Department of Housing and Urban Development when I see these awful slums. Can one believe in a Garbage Disposal Agency?" It's people who are responsible, I guess, rather than God. But actually, as a Swedenborgian, I look at the whole subject from a different perspective altogether. I ask: "Are these ghastly slums succeeding in turning out angels?" I know, of course, that they are turning out a certain proportion of criminals, but then, so are the affluent suburbs! Isn't it possible that at least some of these kids, playing happily together amid the garbage and broken bottles, will end up as angels in heaven? It is a "low-quality school," granted; and we should do all in our power to improve it as a school or training ground; but even very bad and ill-equipped schools have produced fine men and women. Did Abraham Lincoln attend Yale or Harvard? This is not to say it isn't a good thing to attend Yale or Harvard if your parents can afford it; but there are other ways of getting a good education than attending an ivy-league college. So there are other ways of learning the techniques of heavenly living (that is to say, the techniques of loving God and the neighbor) than by growing up in a pleasant, respectable, upper class neighborhood in the suburbs.
Must we, then, renounce the Social Gospel altogether? Of course not! Jesus Himself told us to give to the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and the prisoners in our jails; in other words, to improve the conditions of society, especially for the destitute and needy. But, strangely enough, His stress seems always to have been on the good effect such charitable action had on the do-er rather than on the poor and needy themselves. For example, Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor, not primarily that the poor should be benefited, but that the rich young ruler should inherit eternal life! One of the reasons why the Lord allows suffering in the world is so that we can learn compassion. Probably the best framework for the development of a heavenly character is a society in which there is a tremendous range of conditions, from poverty to wealth, with .a great mixture of races and human types and cultures, good and bad, all thrown together, with as much variety as possible: which, in fact, is what we have here in the U.S.A.
Ever since Plato, politically-minded thinkers have been devising ideal States or Republics. Sir Thomas More called his dream-island "Utopia" (a Greek word meaning "Nowhere" - which to begin with is a discouraging title!). William Morris also had his "News from Nowhere," and Samuel Butler his topsy-turvy satire "Erewhon" ("Nowhere" spelt backwards). Our list of Utopia writers who envisaged an earthly paradise would have to include Karl Marx, though I am thinking rather of men like H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. They conceive of an ideal State as being not "nowhere" but definitely Somewhere - in the near future, when mankind has developed a saner attitude toward himself and the world. Machines will have abolished drudgery; the poor (contrary to our Lord's words) will no longer be with us, for wealth will be distributed evenly; security for all; no slums, everybody happy and content. Unfortunately, however, where universal affluence in a socialist State has to some degree been achieved, the outcome has been disappointing. A sense of personal responsibility has declined, moral standards have eroded. The populace has been trimmed to one pattern, so that there has not been enough variety to produce the healthy tensions which keep life interesting and stimulate creativity. Lack of motivation has led to extreme boredom, which has resulted in an increase of alcoholism, mental disorders, and even suicide. Evidently an easy, comfortable and safe life is not in itself an answer to the question of how best to produce angels for heaven. What we need is not Utopia but the Kingdom of Heaven; and life on earth will only become heavenly when we plan it "for heaven's sake."
Put it this way. Take, for example, a medical school. The purpose of a medical school is to produce physicians and surgeons, right? Now, suppose a well-meaning reformer comes along and sets about turning the medical school into a Utopia. Beautiful premises, comfortable lounges, games facilities and a bar; every student with his own sports car; work reduced to a minimum. All tiresome lectures would, of course, be abolished, and there would be no visits to the hospital, where the students might be embarrassed with the unpleasant sight of sick people. Well, it would be a nice happy and comfortable way of spending one's student years; but such a college would not produce very good doctors! I would rather have a medical school which was not quite so Utopian, where you came into contact with sickness and suffering right from the outset, and learnt how to cope with it, and heal and comfort those in need. The student in such a college will continually be asking himself: "How can I best develop the skills and acquire the knowledge needed to become a good physician or surgeon?"
This, of course, is only an analogy, but I think it throws light on what ought to motivate our whole lives on earth, from childhood through youth and adulthood to old age: "How can I develop the skills and acquire the knowledge needed to become an angel in heaven?" And here a study of Swedenborg's writings is of the utmost practical value, because Swedenborg tells us, more clearly and in greater detail than anyone else, what the qualities of angelhood are, what the life of heaven is like, and what heavenly happiness consists of. Basically, the angels are happy from useful activity, performed on behalf of other people, without thought of reward or even acknowledgment. The heavenly life is an un-self-centered outpouring of skill and talent. We prepare for this in our present life when we discover that we are happiest when we are contributing something to the sum total of happiness of the human race, putting something into the scheme that wasn't there before and perhaps would never be there if we did not put it there.
Another source of happiness for an angel is the increasing number of his intimate friends as the centuries pass, his "spiritual family" as I call it. He can spend eternity getting to know more and more people, at a deeper and deeper level. We can prepare for that also, here and now, by extending our circle of intimate friends, and getting to know each one of them better. Then there is the matter of sharing. The angels retain nothing for themselves alone, but share everything with others. Happiness itself can be shared; and when you have hundreds of individuals all trying to share their happiness with the others, it mounts up almost to bursting point! Then there is marriage love, or "Conjugial Love" as Swedenborg calls it. All the angels, he tells us, are married pairs, the married pair being the unit of the human race. And we know something of the joy of marriage in this world, which so closely resembles the mystical union between the Lord and His Church. So, in the intimacy of our marriages on earth we co-operate with the Lord in His greatest creative work, the conception and rearing of children. This leads up to the highest of all the sources of happiness in heaven: intimacy with the Lord Himself. It is the sphere of the Lord that makes heaven, and angels become what they are by emptying out self and being infilled with His Holy Spirit. Love to the Lord and love to the neighbor are the two requirements for qualification as angels, and Love to the Lord is the more important of the two.
This gives us a clue as to the weakest element in our western culture, the area in which, "for heaven's sake," we should try to improve ourselves. We understand, more or less, what is required under the heading "Love to the neighbor," and when we fall short we realize we have fallen short, and are ashamed. But in the vastly more important area of love to the Lord we are, as a people, sadly lacking, and generally not in the least bit ashamed! We sing the hymn to a fine and stirring tune: "Oh let us blaze Thy truth abroad in every word and deed, That love of man is love of God, of holiness the seed." Well, love of man may be love of God, but very often it isn't; and insofar as God is left out, holiness disappears and we are left with mere humanism, which does not prepare us for heaven. That is where the Social Gospel fails; it defeats its own end by leading people away from God to the humanistic idea that "We ourselves can, and must, put things straight in the world, and we can do it by sociological experimentation and applied technology." Humanism cannot produce the kingdom of Heaven, only an unhappy Utopia. The true source of heavenly happiness is God; and, unless we learn that lesson and approach the Lord as our loving Father, we shall never enter His kingdom or achieve the full joy of a family relationship with Him.
Therefore, if you are honestly seeking to prepare yourself for a happy eternity, you must not only love your neighbor as yourself, but you must love and worship your Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. Think of Him continually with joy, thanksgiving and praise; have His image at the back of your mind all the time; let His love permeate your whole being. Then you will be in heaven already.
The Lord created the universe with the object that there should be a heaven of angels from the human race. Cooperate with Him in that purpose, since it involves you. Do all you do "for heaven's sake." Yes, but more important still, do it "for God's sake!"